15 December, 2007Issue 7.1PhilosophyScience

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With Darwin in Mind

Jamie Horder

Steven Pinker
The Stuff of Thought:
Language as a Window into Human Nature

Allen Lane, 2007
512 pages
ISBN 978-0713997415


Steven Pinker likes language. He has, after all, built a career on the study of it, and he confesses that he is perhaps a little too fond of obscure verbs. Language, it seems, also likes Steven Pinker, at least judging by his justly famous ability as a master of English prose. Given this mutual appreciation, it is perhaps somewhat surprising that one of the arguments of Pinker’s latest book, The Stuff of Thought, is that the place of language in the human mind is not nearly so central as many have claimed. Although he spends plenty of entertaining pages discussing the grammar and semantics of profanity (When I exclaim ‘Screw you!’, what exactly am I saying?) and explaining why so many of his generation are called Steve, the focus of the book lies in exploring why language is not the master of the mind and what, in fact, is.

The anthropologist and linguist Benjamin Whorf lent his name to the hypothesis that the particular language which one is raised to speak has a profound influence on the way in which one perceives and conceives of the world. In its strong form, Whorfianism holds that certain thoughts and ideas are literally inconceivable to those who do not speak the appropriate tongue. In other words, the language we use to communicate with other people is the same language which we use, in our heads, for thinking and reasoning: the unspeakable is also the unthinkable. To take a well-worn example, Eskimos supposedly have a great many different words for the various kinds of what English simply calls ‘snow’. Surely, this means that Eskimos think about and even see the powdery white stuff differently? (Whorf himself even went as far as to claim that the Hopi, a Native American people, actually have no concept of time, or at least not as we know it, on the grounds that their language has no tenses and has, in general, a poverty of time-related terms.)

Pinker thinks little of such arguments. As he points out, if Eskimos have no shortage of words for water in its solid form, this is presumably because they spend their lives working on and with it. Their numerous words for snow are the consequence, not the cause, of the Eskimo’s intimate knowledge of it, and even the most parochial English speaker will quickly come to appreciate the subtleties of snow once they find themselves knee-deep in it. Depending upon how you count them, Pinker says, we in fact probably have just as many words for snow as the Eskimos anyway. Likewise, although different languages deal with time in numerous ways, closer anthropological inspection shows that all peoples do understand and work within it (how indeed could they survive if they didn’t?). Of course, it remains possible that the language we speak determines not what we can and cannot think but what we habitually tend to think, conditioning the kind of things we pay attention to, and the implicit assumptions we are prone to make. Pinker is willing to admit that there may be something in this weaker (or as he puts it, less interesting) theory.

Whorf’s is not the only theory of ‘linguistic determinism’ that Pinker is determined to lay to rest. The cognitive scientist and Democratic Party activist George Lakoff also draws fire for his theory that our abstract thoughts are necessarily structured by linguistic metaphors. Lakoff points out that almost all of our discourse either concerns concrete objects and occurrences, or refers to abstract concepts as if they were such concretes. It is indeed remarkable that we talk nonchalantly about the stick that props up Sam’s garden shed and the argument that props up Kant’s theory of transcendental idealism; of the passing-by of the 10.30 train to Bristol and of the passing-by of time (or its flowing, etc.) For Lakoff, these are not ‘mere’ metaphors, but evidence that our minds actually cannot deal with abstract concepts except by representing them as concrete things. It follows that the particular metaphor which we adopt in regard to a situation dictates the whole way in which we think about an issue—a conclusion with important practical implications for politicians, among others. Pinker, however, says that we can, and indeed often do, point out the ways in which a given metaphor is valid or invalid. Rather than being slaves to metaphors, we seem to have a genuine abstract reasoning ability, independent of language, which stands aloft from them. Again, this is not to deny that analogies can be important tools of thought, especially when it comes to helping us to formulate novel ideas. Nor is it to deny that the way an issue is framed can shape our conceptions of it. Pinker’s point is that, even if influenced by language, thought does not rely upon it—we can go beyond metaphor, indeed beyond words, even if we often do not. As he points out, this is probably most people’s ‘common sense’ view, although of course, this does not mean it is true.

If, then, Pinker is so fond of language, why is he so eager to put it in its place? One clue is in the subtitle of the book, ‘language as a window into human nature’. For Pinker holds a very specific theory of human nature and, in one way or another, all of his several popular books have been dedicated to expounded and defending it. In The Stuff of Thought, he aims to show how our ways of speaking shed light on human psychology, but for this to be more than a circular exercise, our psychology has to exist independently of, and be reflected in, the structure of language, rather than the other way around. If Whorf and his friends had their way, it would be psychology which reflected linguistics, and human nature would vanish in a puff of pronouns.

Pinker’s interest in human nature is long-standing. He is a founding member of the school of thought known as Evolutionary Psychology, a movement which originated in the late 1980s as a conscious reaction against the prevailing climate in the social sciences, where culture was everything and man was a ‘blank slate’ whose mind and behaviour were socially constructed. Evolutionary Psychologists believe that just as the human body has been shaped by the process of evolution, giving us the distinct anatomy with which we are all so familiar, natural selection has also provided us with a mental architecture—a set of ways of thinking, feeling and perceiving shared by all normal human beings, regardless of the language we speak or the culture in which we are socialised, and ultimately the product of the genetically determined structure of our brains. This cognitive toolbox is human nature, man’s common inheritance. Pinker is one of the most influential proponents of this view; he was a contributor to the classic The Adapted Mind (1992), while in his book The Language Instinct (1995), he described language as one of Man’s evolved mental faculties. In How the Mind Works (1997)he presented a layman’s account of human nature as Evolutionary Psychologists see it. Such ideas have proven attractive to many experimental psychologists and neuroscientists—among other things, Darwinism offers what the behavioural sciences have long lacked, a unifying paradigm. There have, however, been vocal critics—the philosopher Jerry Fodor, for example, left no doubt over which side he was on by publishing a book entitled The Mind Doesn’t Work That Way.

So, for Pinker, the stuff of thought is not language. On the contrary, it is our built-in cognitive machinery: a triumph of evolution which effortlessly performs the mind-boggling task of taking our raw sensory data and constructing a model of the world ordered according to the categories of space, time, and causation, populated by other people whose minds we understand in terms of intentions, beliefs and desires. We are so familiar with these mental scaffolds that they can easily go unnoticed, but if we look closely we can see evidence of them in our language. Take causation: the way we think about cause-and-effect is not derived from anything we know about physics, Pinker claims, but rather relies upon a simple mental model. Certain objects or actors have ‘intrinsic’ tendencies to do or act in certain ways and other objects can prevent, allow or help them to do this—like little balls pushing each other around. Accordingly we distinguish between scenarios which are, nevertheless, logically equivalent: if I were to throw a marble at a coin which was about to fall heads, pushing it over onto tails instead, we say that I ‘caused’ it to end up tails, but we do not say this, although it is hard to justify why, if I intercept a marble which is threatening to do the opposite. We also talk about certain objects (often people) as being uncaused causes—John broke the lamp—implicitly affirming our belief in free will. Pinker provides a similar analysis of the cognitive scaffolding behind our talk about space and time, ethics and more.

Some might detect echoes of Sigmund Freud in all of this, perhaps comparing it unfavourably with the psychoanalytic theory of unconscious desires which reveal themselves cryptically in dreams and slips of the tongue. Yet there are fundamental differences. For one thing, Pinker does not rely purely on the analysis of language, since he also quotes experimental evidence in support of his positions. The analogy with Freud is also tenuous, for he claimed to have identified long-buried ideas which were quite inaccessible to normal consciousness; only with the help of a trained psychoanalyst could such gloomy realms be charted. By contrast, what Pinker is doing is pointing us towards aspects of our thinking which normally escape our attention. The point is that they are just that—aspects of our own minds, not of reality out there. In other words, he is inviting us to see as merely psychology things which we otherwise take for granted. Our brains impose the concepts of causality, space, and time, and human agency, upon the world, rather than reading them off from it—and this is surely a fascinating thought, not to mention a disturbing one.

There’s nothing especially new in all this. Anyone familiar with Western philosophy will recognise that Pinker is providing a modern treatment of issues centuries old, and, to his credit, he briefly discusses thinkers such as Hume who, more than two centuries ago, provided arguments against the objective validity of, for example, our conception of causality. In particular, the theory that our minds produce a picture of reality structured around innate mental concepts of space and time strongly recalls Immanuel Kant, as Pinker himself points out. Yet what is more original about The Stuff of Thought, apart from its accessibility (one certainly feels that Kant could have used a couple more Dilbert cartoons, and I’m sure Plato would have appreciated Pinker’s characterisation of his Cave as a ‘movie theatre out of the Flintstones’), is that it provides a firmly scientific approach to these quintessential philosophical questions. Our minds work in certain ways because these ways proved to be useful during the evolutionary time over which our species was formed: there is no real mystery about why we conceive of the world in the way in which we do, and some day, we may even come to understand how our brains do it.

Yet Pinker shies away from some of the more radical interpretations that could be drawn from this picture. Our concepts of free will, moral responsibility, cause-and-effect, and objects-in-space may indeed be mere phantoms of the human brain, he says, but they are useful ones, and it is not as if we have any practical alternatives for our day-to-day lives. Disappointingly, while he may well be justified in this pragmatic conservativism, he gives very little attention to the issue, and one is left feeling that there is much more to be said about this. Philosophers, for example, have long used their intuitions as a window into the nature of the moral and physical worlds. If Pinker is right, then this whole enterprise seems in danger of being reduced to a branch of cognitive science: the study of how we have evolved to think about the world, rather than how the world really is. (Indeed, although Pinker does not mention them, a number of philosophers, such as Shaun Nichols, have begun to argue along these lines and have proposed that the future should belong to an ‘experimental philosophy’ which adopts scientific methods. Of course, not everyone is happy about this threatened annexation by science.)

The Stuff of Thought concludes on a hopeful note with a chapter called ‘Out of the Cave’. Pinker says that while evolution has given our minds a distinct architecture, it has also made them flexible. We are vassals neither of language, nor culture, nor natural selection, and with the proper education we can come to think, and talk, in ways which go far beyond what nature intended. While the ways our minds have evolved may not be ideally suited to the challenges of the modern world, and while, as Pinker notes, ‘Left to our own devices, we are apt to backslide into our instinctive conceptual ways’ we also find ourselves with the capacity for genuine reasoning. Reading this book along with his others, one senses that Pinker is interested in more than just language and psychology. What he is really concerned with is defending the possibility of human knowledge and progress against the threat of post-modern relativism. Thus his rejection of Whorf and Lakoff’s attempts to reduce the mind’s working to linguistic puppetry.

With his common-sense view of cognition, his confident belief in a universal human nature, and his enthusiasm for natural science, Pinker resembles the philosophes of the 18th century Enlightenment. Like them, he is no professional philosopher, but seeks, with more than a little mischievousness, to overturn what he sees as an outdated orthodoxy, in this case the prevailing cultural relativism of the social sciences. Those on the receiving end—those for whom the Enlightenment is something which our post-modern world has rightly moved beyond—are likely to be less than enthusiastic about The Stuff of Thought’s message. Were Voltaire in a position to comment, however, he would, I feel, approve.

Jamie Horder is reading for a DPhil in Psychiatry at St John’s College, Oxford.